>> as tens of thousands of refugees flee war-torn syria, correspondent martin smith gains special access to regime-held territory. >> smith: am i your first american visitor? >> yeah. welcome. (gunshots) >> from rubble... >> i don't have any future now in syria. they destroyed our whole life. >> to resorts... (shutters clicking) >> frontline presents a surprising journey. (man yelling) >> from the suffering, to the surreal, to syria's uncertain future.
>> smith: many in america say that the president is a war criminal, killing civilians. >> (translated): what should we do? send boxes of flowers and fruit? >> (translated): there's no alternative to president bashar. >> tonight ofrontline, "inside assad's syria." >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world. more information is available at macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working
with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at fordfoundation.org. the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. and additional support from millicent bell, through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. corporate funding is provided by: >> the future of surgery is within sight. our research is studying how real-time multimodality imaging during surgery can help precision and outcomes. brigham and women's hospital. it all starts here. >> martin smith: my trip starts in beirut, lebanon.
damascus is just 85 miles away. this is the only safe road in. since the war began four-and-a-half years ago, the government of bashar al-assad has severely restricted access to regime-held syria. but now a contact with ties to the regime has arranged some special visas. before crossing, i change dollars for syrian liras. with the country under economic sanctions, it's an all-cash economy. after we leave lebanon, we come into a kind of no-man's-land.
then we hit the first syrian immigration point. in less than an hour, we reach damascus. (radio switching frequencies) >> mix fm syria. >> mix fm syria, syria, syria. >> new music first. (pitbull's song "fun" playing) >> smith: the first thing that surprises me is the jolt of an american pop tune on a local english language radio station. this i don't expect. >> ♪ somewhere we can go and no one else can find ♪ loosen up your body, baby come undone ♪ loosen up your body, baby come undone... ♪
>> smith: i am struck by how relaxed and ordinary things appear. damascus has always been a secular city: a mix of muslims, christians, druze, and alawites, many with european aspirations. but while these were the kind of images so familiar before the crisis, i did not expect them now in the middle of a brutal war. men playing games. young girls enjoying the evening. good syrian food. (dance music playing) and in a rooftop bar, lots of drinking and dancing. it may not seem like it,
but the fighting is only a few minutes away. (dance music continues) when we arrived in july 2015, the regime controlled just a narrow strip along the western edge of the country. much of the rest of syria was in the hands of either jihadists like isis or western-backed rebels. this includes areas in or near damascus. rocket and mortar attacks on the city are frequent. the regime responds with air power, including notoriously
inaccurate and deadly barrel bombs on crowded neighborhoods. (explosions) (people shouting) >> smith: on my first full day in syria, i visit the old souk of central damascus. i ask passersby where they are from. >> smith: these are some of syria's seven million internally displaced people. you left before isis or after isis took over?
pro-regime journalist thaer al-ajlani. for four and a half years, he has chronicled the war. >> (translated): my main work is military. every area, every battle in syria has been archived within a folder. >> smith: al-ajlani has agreed to take us to the frontlines. >> (translated): here in this footage, i was filming wearing a helmet. here we are trying to open a hole in the wall so we can be inside isis areas. we'll now be inside isis areas. >> smith: he wants me to see things from the regime's perspective. so these are the rebels who come over to fight with the ndf? >> (translated): they shaved their beards before defecting. this scene is only half an hour after they defected. the defectors were scared that
they would be tortured by the state, but look at them. they are eating and drinking. >> smith: i couldn't verify this scene. but he shows me another where he was filming as he was hit by shrapnel. >> (translated): in this shot, i'm shooting with the camera on me. >> (shouting in video) >> (translated): i was wounded when i was making this report. >> smith: we agree to meet later. he promises to get us the needed permits and to introduce us to people and places western reporters rarely see. >> (translated): any area you wish to visit, i will sit with you and give you pictures and information. >> smith: but before we travel with al-ajlani, he encourages us to attend a government-sponsored media conference in damascus
designed to promote the regime's narrative. the first thing i am shown are dozens of horrific pictures. i am told these are the innocent victims of attacks against the assad regime. inside the hall, a film is playing. >> smith: it depicts the regime as valiantly defending itself against terrorists who are supported by foreign conspirators. (applause)
>> smith: as the lights come on, i am suddenly in the midst of hundreds of regime officials and their friends. there's assad's media adviser in the white coat. the woman in the black dress, a regular columnist for a prominent regime newspaper. there's the grand mufti in his white turban, leader of syria's loyalist sunnis, and there's a famous pro-regime film director with the long white hair. on the stage is syria's foreign minister, flanked by two key allies of the regime: deputy secretary general of hezbollah on the left and iran's minister of culture on the right. i'm also told the russian ambassador is in the audience, but i can't find him. in any case, they've all gathered here along with selected guests from mostly middle eastern media outlets to counter what they see as skewed western reporting and to denounce their enemies.
(applause) >> smith: the problems we face as journalists... during the break, i am cornered by some of the reporters. as one of the only americans here, they want to know if i think this conference will help end the war. i don't want to disappoint you, but i'm not here to give opinions. i'm here as a journalist to ask questions and to listen to people. i've come here as a visitor and i'm here to listen. we decide not to stay for the afternoon. i am eager to travel. back at my hotel, i look through some more of al-ajlani's report. >> (children shouting) >> smith: the next couple of days pass as various permits
and paperwork are processed. i also put in a request to interview the president. one morning, i hear that he is giving a speech. with my translator at my side, i tune in to syria's state tv channel. it is the first time he has addressed the nation in over a year, and the speech is surprising. assad says that because of a shortage of soldiers, the regime must give up control of some areas of the country. >> smith: but he makes it very clear that he and the regime are not backing down. (explosions) >> smith: the next morning,
i awake early to the sound of bombs and rocket fire. out my window, i see a column of smoke rising above a nearby neighborhood. then, i receive a phone call. i am told that the journalist al-ajlani had been out early that morning filming the battle. he was hit by mortar fire. he is dead. it's a shock. we had just met. i wanted to get to know this man better, and to understand his syria. (rapid gunfire) the next day, i attend the
(people shouting) >> smith: it is generally accepted that the syrian civil war began in march 2011 in deraa, a town 60 miles south of damascus, when peaceful demonstrators were fired upon by regime forces. i want to hear how regime loyalists tell it. this man agrees to talk if his identity is hidden. he was sent to deraa as a member of assad's state security, the mukhabarat. he says it was the protesters who fired first. >> (translated): we had only plastic clubs riot security personnel usually have. and there was a big number of people taking part. we stood there watching them. some armed men among the protesters started shooting at us. we had no body armor,
no helmets. >> smith: were any of you guys killed? >> (translated): yes, of course, by a sniper shooting from the minaret of the mosque. he died before we could take him to a doctor. >> smith: videos posted by opposition protesters from around this time are confusing. some scenes do show security officers beating protesters with their clubs. other videos show protesters running away from gunfire. (gunfire) i ask about charges that it was the security forces that fired first. >> (translated): no, the peaceful demonstrations were always protected by the security force and kept safe from any harm.
>> smith: but i then ask about all the tv coverage showing the army brutally attacking the demonstrators. he says that only happened after the protesters turned violent. he adds something i have heard often since i arrived here: that the uprising was really a foreign conspiracy. i go see that movie director from the media conference, najdat anzour. >> (translated): what happened in the beginning of the uprising is that there were some legitimate demands, but there were also foreign agendas being carried out. >> smith: anzour shows me a trailer from a movie he made about syria's arch enemy, saudi arabia, and its founder king abdul aziz al saud. according to anzour, it is saudi arabia that escalated the violence in syria,
not president assad. >> (translated): i believe that the swamp of terrorism and backwardness in the arab world is saudi arabia. and if we want to get rid of isis and nusra, we have to get rid of the saudi regime. >> what do you think, abdul aziz? >> smith: in this clip, an aide asks the king what should be done with two adulterers. and what should be done with a thief. (screaming) >> smith: and like many loyalists, anzour talks as if all opponents of the regime are like isis. but is it necessary for the government...?
but i press anzour on the regims heavy use of indiscriminate weas like barrel bombs. >> (translated): the areas being bombed by the regime that the west or other people claim have civilians in them, in my opinion, these areas are harboring extremists, so they are part of this extremism. so when you are throwing barrel bombs on an area where extremists live with the people, in my opinion, the government should be doing much more. the government response hasn't yet reached the desired level. (explosion) (car alarms blaring) (people shouting) (sirens blaring)
>> smith: i am still trying to get permission to travel outside of damascus. but with al-ajlani dead, i will need someone else to help me get through military checkpoints. stop. so i go to the ministry of information, where i hope they can help me. but i get off on the wrong floor and walk into the foreign media department. this is a big mistake. i am told i have to leave the country in three days. so i go back to see the director anzour. i find him in a café. because he is close to the regime, i ask him if he can help me get our trip back on track.
he is receptive. >> (translated): your presence in this country is an opportunity not just for you, but for us also, to say our opinion and have it reach the world. that's why i want this. >> smith: he sets us up with a member of his security detail, a syrian air force intelligence colonel. we drive north toward homs, syria's third largest city after aleppo and damascus. the colonel brings along a couple of kalashnikovs, a revolver, and a grenade. >> smith: as in deraa, the fight began here when men, women, and children took to the streets
to protest government corruption and brutality. >> smith: and within months, it devolved into armed struggle. (gunfire) the rebels called homs the capital of their revolution. (gunfire) assad's forces imposed a siege. but unlike deraa, where the government prevailed early, the siege of homs lasted two years.
okay. marhaba. >> marhaba. >> smith: pleasure to meet you. am i your first american visitor? >> (translator speaking) >> oh, yeah. welcome. >> smith: al-barazi was a businessman working in dubai when assad asked him to take over homs in the middle of the siege. i ask him whether the rebels are still occupying any parts of the city. >> (translated): in homs, there are 36 neighborhoods. today, 35 of those are in the hands of the government. only one neighborhood, al waar, still has armed groups. >> smith: last night, we heard a large explosion. what did we hear? >> (translated): yesterday, i was outside homs, in wadi, where we had the opening of a tourism festival. >> smith: a tourism festival? the governor and the regime are
working hard to put on a good face. to that end, this june, the government launched something they called the summer in syria campaign. it involved art fairs, film festivals, and fashion shows. they urged syrians to share their experiences on twitter. they got an unexpectedly heavy response. "enjoying the summer in syria." "greetings from homs." "just having some tea and enjoying the view from my balcony." "c'mon, it will be a different experience." "just a few more barrel bombs and this will all be white sand."
during my visit to homs, i actually meet the man in charge of the campaign, syria's minister of tourism bishr yazigi. >> smith: how do you do? >> nice to meet you here. >> smith: nice to meet you, it's good to be here. >> smith: the minister is still very upbeat about his mission. >> smith: the minister is here in homs to see one other project. so we follow him and the governor through the bombed-out
remains of central homs to this place five miles east of the city. the resort isn't fully open yet, just the pool and public areas. everyone seems excited. the minister's visit attracts ten local reporters, and the resort is already taking reservations. >> smith: the official opening is just a month away. >> smith: just ten miles from rebel lines, the animals look
as stunned as i am. we drive back to the reality of homs. this city is going to need a lot more than a new resort. i talk to some high school students who make that clear. syria has little to offer them. they face military conscription when they finish school or a car bomb tomorrow. what do you worry about? >> i worry about my friends. i worry about these explosions that happen in our neighborhood. there is so many. >> smith: who is doing the explosions? >> terrorists. >> smith: terrorists. and where are they from? what group? >> the terrorists have destroyed
my future. i don't have any future now in syria. they destroyed our life. we were happy people because we live in a safe place. now we can't. we're afraid of every car could bomb in us. >> smith: are we safe here? >> no place in syria is safe. no place. because the american government has given the rebels long-range rockets. they can destroy any place in syria. we're not safe in our homes. >> smith: next, we head west into the provinces of tartus and latakia, the alawite heartland of syria. assad's father, hafez, an alawite, came from this region.
before the war, the area was known for its luxury hotels and beach clubs. this is where syria's vacationing elite have always come to play. and even with occasional car bombs and rocket attacks on the town, it is still hard to get a hotel reservation. after taking these pictures, we are asked to stop filming. we are told members of the president's family are here. tartus and latakia are considered the regime's last refuge. assad's ally, russia, has long operated a port in tartus, and while we were there, russia was expanding a military airfield and base in latakia.
the area is home to some of the regime's most fervent supporters. everywhere we go, there are posters memorializing dead alawite soldiers. more than one million people hae also flooded the area, displaced by fighting, seeking safety. on an unusually hot and humid day, these sunni women are lined up at a center run jointly by the red crescent society and the un. >> smith: when did you come, and from where?
we head toward areas near the front. locals here are fighting for their very survival. this man's daughter was a regime sniper. >> (translated): i am proud of her martyrdom, and as long as our leadership is wise, we are all proud of it. >> smith: do you have other children? >> (translated): yes, i have two sons who were also injured. one lost a part of his arm. but thanks to god anyway. this is a cause i believe in very much. >> smith: two other sons that are fighting with the syrian army? >> (translated): yes, there's a lot of martyrs from this small town of 2,050 people. we have 40 martyrs and 70 injured. >> smith: that's a big cost. >> (translated): very. >> smith: that's very hard.
>> (translated): very. >> smith: good luck to you, sir. >> smith: next, we rendezvous at a crossroads with the group of pro-regime militiamen we were invited to see. up the road, we meet their leader, munzer nasr. >> (translated): the people here, we are ready to sacrifice in any and every moment to defend syrian soil and unity. >> smith: and how close is the front to here? >> (translated): we are almost at the frontline. we're about 30 kilometers away, 25 to 30. >> smith: on the other side of these mountains is the al ghab
plain, site of some of the fiercest fighting in all of syr. rebel groups want to cross here, break through to the coast, and cut the regime's supply lines. and what's the toll of the war been on this town? >> (translated): i don't know the exact number, but there's a big number. >> smith: nasr shows me his martyr's wall. >> smith: afterwards, he invites me to lunch. over grilled syrian kebabs, we talk about who he is fighting: isis, the nusra front, or the western-backed free syrian army.
i ask him about the difference. what's the difference between those that join the free syrian army groups as opposed to isis and nusra? >> (translated): in the beginning, they would join the free syrian army. and then it developed into islamist groups, to nusra, and to finally isis. they will all become isis. all of them. >> smith: then, after conflating all his enemies, he tells me why he wants to destroy them. >> (translated): i have a beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters, and i need to protect them because these scum of the earth have started selling the women from minority groups. look at who is behind isis and who is making it work. who is behind isis? definitely individuals in the american leadership. the zionist lobby. the turkish secret service. turkey 100%. they facilitate everything the
saudis and qataris are funding. it's a world project. >> smith: many in america say that the president is a war criminal, and he is conducting a war indiscriminately and killing civilians. what do you say to those americans? >> (translated): what should we say? "welcome armed groups, welcome rebels"? "come take this country and do with it what you please"? when a group of 400 armed men comes and they take control of everything and they organize themselves in battalions against the regime, what should we do? send boxes of flowers and fruit? >> smith: nasr's vision offers only more fighting.
a regime contact wants me to meet this man. his name is majd heimoud. we go with him into quneitra province south of damascus, a hot zone with many active battlefronts. there are a slew of checkpoints. but i'm told majd has a story worth hearing. in 2011, he was fighting on the side of the syrian army, but he says his officers were untrustworthy and corrupt. >> (translated): i was a volunteer in the syrian army. but the officers in our division would abuse us. i had to defect out of fear that
they would detain and treat me unjustly. >> smith: in december of 2011, majd defected to the rebel side to fight against the government. >> smith: when he was a rebel, majd's army targeted assad's forces in southern syria near israel. a regime commander recalls. >> smith: so he was killing your men? >> of course. not him by himself, but his group. >> smith: they killed some of your relatives? >> yeah, four relatives of mine. >> smith: the commander doesn't want to be identified, but he tells me how he came to know majd personally. >> a friend of mine once came and told me that, "majd
wants to talk with you." >> smith: you knew who he was? >> of course. he was a leader of the al-mouatassem battalion. fighting against us every day, clashes between us. >> smith: and you talked to him? >> yeah, of course. one call after one call after another call after another call. there's a joke between us and there's a man-word between me and him that nobody attack the other one. just to put trust between us. >> smith: finally, after eight months... >> (translated): i told him that my men and i want to come back and fight with you guys again. and we got amnesty from the president, and we reconciled. >> smith: someone in the president's office wanted me to hear this story.
it shows that there are some free syrian army fighters willing to defect back to the regime side. how many is unclear. the great majority are still fighting assad. meanwhile, i had heard that there are some syrians pushing from within for a political solution. in a far suburb of damascus, i meet anas joudeh. he has invited me to a meeting of political activists. >> smith: many of these people have spent time in assad's prisons.
>> smith: their situation is tricky. they oppose assad's dictatorship, but they know that the regime also uses them as a kind of token opposition that gives assad cover. the opposition that resides outside the country calls you the pseudo-opposition. how do you respond to that? >> smith: in this meeting, they are trying to formulate a political platform.
>> smith: the meeting disintegrates before they are able to agree on common goals. >> we were trying to launch a new initiative, but this is a process. >> smith: so that effort at least in the short-term failed? >> yes, in the very short-term. >> smith: but you'll try again? >> sure. this is the path. this is the way at the end. there is no alternative. we have no alternative rather than to talk with each other. >> smith: in 2011, joudeh joined the protests calling for the downfall of assad. but after four and a half years of a destabilizing war, he now cautions that rapid change could be dangerous. >> it's not because we love the regime. it's because we don't want the collapse of the state. people are coming here in the areas controlled by the state or by the regime because they want the institutions of the state, because they need security, the minimum of security, the minimum of stability.
and we know. we have witnessed what happened in iraq and what happened in libya and what happened in many countries where this lost main institution were collapsed. >> smith: right now, you know, we hear bombs. the tactics of the rebels is to lob mortars inside damascus. the response of the government is to go out and pummel these neighborhoods with barrel bombs. (explosion) what's the alternative? >> the alternative, it's about going directly to the armed groups and talk directly to them. >> smith: what do you think the united states should be doing regarding the syrian crisis? >> first of all, addressing the crisis directly, not going around it. by talking first of all with the russians and having agreement with the russians. >> smith: should the united states be talking with assad? >> yes. at the end, the united states is the leader of the world. the united states is the one, and the only one, who can make this kind of agreement and
this kind of stabilizations in the region. >> smith: but president obama has been resolute. assad must go. i go see yacoub el hillo, a sudanese who heads the un's humanitarian mission in syria. he believes the world powers are to blame for the depth of syria's crisis. >> the paralysis at the security council is what is causing the suffering of the syrian people today. the council is responsible for maintaining international peace and security. but in the case of syria, i think the council has failed its responsibilities fully. and the result is the suffering of the syrian people. this was a country that was taking off in economic terms, in development terms, in opportunity terms. but it is a conflict that has
pitted syrians against themselves to levels unimaginable. i mean, the intensity and the passion with which this war is also being prosecuted is shocking. >> smith: the united states says that until assad goes, there is no peace, that they have described him recently as the root of all evil in syria. >> well, that's the united states which is saying this. i am here living in damascus, and i say there are national institutions that are delivering services to the 18 million people that are still living in syria. it is our responsibility to work with these institutions where they exist, and they exist in most parts of the country. there are 18 million syrians who have not given up, and none of us has the right to give up if they are still here in this country.
>> smith: for many syrians, it is too late. the crisis has already led to thousands upon thousands of deaths and sent millions of others permanently abroad. the makeup of syria is likely forever changed. on my last day, i'm awaiting word from the president's office as to whether he will sit for an interview. but events derail my request. the iranian foreign minister has come to visit assad. (low rumbling) and in protest, rebels rain dozens of mortars on downtown damascus. a man just outside my window is shrapnelled in the stomach. >> allahu akbar!
>> smith: the government responds with an air attack on the damascus suburb of darya. we ask to visit a hospital to interview the injured. instead, we are offered tickets to the syrian national symphony. (applause) ♪ >> smith: since my visit, the syrian crisis has entered a dangerous new phase. at assad's request, russia has launched direct air and missile attacks on syrian rebel forces, including those backed by
the united states. and just last week, assad flew to moscow to strategize with president putin, and to discuss the future of his regime. we leave before the concert ends. we head back to beirut. >> next time, a frontline/propublica exclusive investigation. a string of murdered journalists. >> somebody knows who's responsible for each and every one of these acts. >> for them to pull that off in such a quick time, that takes money, that takes support. >> do you think the bureau should reopen the investigation? >> if new information has developed, oh yeah. >> 30 years later, why is it still a secret? "terror in little saigon."
>> go to pbs.org/frontline for more from filmmaker martin smith about his reporting from syria. >> smith: is it necessary for... can president assad bring the country back together? >> no place in syria is safe. we're not safe in our homes. >> explore our full archive of reports from the war zone. then connect to the frontline community on facebook and twitter. visit us on youtube for even more original frontline reporting. and if stories like this matter to you, then sign up for our newsletter at pbs.org/frontline. >> frontlinis made possible by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. and by the corporation for public broadcasting. major support for frontliis provided by the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant
and peaceful world. more information is available at macfound.org. additional support is provided by the park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the john and helen glessner family trust, supporting trustworthy journalism that informs and inspires. the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide, at fordfoundation.org. the wyncote foundation. and by the frontline journalism fund, with major support from jon and jo ann hagler. and additional support from millicent bell, through the millicent and eugene bell foundation. corporate funding for frontline is provided by brigham and women's hospital. >> for more on this and other frontline programs, visit our website at pbs.org/frontline.
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